Friday, 29 November 2013

Myrina Town: past and present

Myrina Town: past and present

The little I knew about the house before arriving was that it lay on the outskirts of the island’s principal town of Myrina, close to one of the town’s main swimming beaches. In the past this location had given all of Takis’ extended Greek family wonderful summer holidays. Takis’ mother and her siblings had known the town as Castro, named after the Venetian castle at its center. Still today it is sometimes called that by its old inhabitants.

When we first arrived it was late evening but the next day – a bright crisp January morning – I looked out of our hotel window and saw the old castle glowing in the early morning light and all around it the red-tiled roofs of Myrina. I’m not sure when or why there was a name change, but now the town is known as Myrina after the wife of an ancient prince who arrived on the island in the Bronze Age from the Royal Minoan Court in Crete. King Thoa and Queen Myrina, as they are now known, came with their daughter Hypsipyle and a number of courtiers, and with their coming a town was built on the western side of the island.

It was only when we went to the house, and carefully ascended the stairs to the top floor that I saw that the house we were thinking of buying overlooked the town, the old Venetian fort and the blue waters of the Aegean beyond. Looking out and seeing how the house was positioned, on the outskirts of the town, I began to wonder about the history of this site. After all, the island had a very long history. And I immediately wanted to know more.

The house is now situated on the outskirts of Myrina but we knew that in previous generations it lay in a separate village. I’d been told that when Takis’ cousins arrived with their families they’d walk through fields to get to the sea. On that first drive to the house Takis had been surprised to see that nowadays there are new homes climbing the hills surrounding the town. Lemnos may not have many tourists, and Myrina may still be a quaint Greek town, but like everywhere in the world things are changing here also.


Holding Hills:

Myrina’s embracing arms encircle
Traditional homes in the valley below,
Or cup houses with red tiles.
Like locals we live in Myrina.

Minuscule Passages:

Cars and prams and scooters go rattling
O’er cobbled lanes ‘tween imperious stone houses
Along patched and white edged roads.
Like locals we walk through Myrina.

Jumble of Stores:

Shop-keepers flaunt their post-cards and trinkets
Down in the Agora ‘neath leaning striped awnings,
With towels and shoes and toys.
Like locals we shop in Myrina.

Local Inhabitants:

Lemian men walk with rolling gait,
Their women in black shop for their daily needs
Young girls stroll in sparkling tights
Like locals we watch the folk of Myrina.


English and German and Dutch and Greeks
Sun-redden or browned on the sand they lie
Smoking and sipping a frappe.
Like locals we tolerate tourists in Myrina.

Historic Island:

Near an old castle in Myrina we live
In one of those tall imperious stone houses
Built by a trader from Egypt.
Like locals we’ve a past in Myrina

Monday, 25 November 2013

Workers and Helpers

 Workers and Helpers 

Takis and the Traders

Takis found that he had to get used to the local economy, on the island trading was much more personal. He became familiar with the owners of the small shops and warehouses, and they became familiar with his project.  

He discovered that he was known as ‘The Australian’ by building suppliers. And it was because he got a firm quote for materials, and then paid up-front, not waiting until the job was finished and then delaying payment or haggling over the price, he was soon not only welcomed he was respected. He also became known as someone who liked to share a joke but who nevertheless was a straight-talking guy who knew what he wanted. 

However, while engaged on our renovation project Takis’ often found he’s had to work with the shadow economy while not entirely accepting it. For instance, if he had to pay a bill he knew that there was one price if he was willing to forego a receipt and quite a bit more if he demanded one. This was difficult for, as a newcomer, if he demanded different treatment to others he might be viewed as someone setting himself above the local community. I believe it was his persistently honest interactions with businesses that enabled us to finish buying and renovating the house.

Our Workers

Rebuilding the furno

Removing the old furnishings

An excerpt from 

It all began with a watermelon: the project to renovate the old Greek house

Anestis had already been in casual employment with the family for a number of years, and his wife Maria was  employed to do some cleaning for Takis' sister when she lived there. Anestis and Maria are Albanians, one of the latest of the groups of craftsmen and labourers to come to the island, for traditionally people have come from the Balkans to Greece for seasonal work. In the past these sinafia might come from Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, or from the mountains of Greece, to work in the fields or towns during the spring and summer months then return to their homelands in autumn.

Nowadays, though, many were like Anestis and Maria and stay all year, even choosing to send their children to local schools. In fact, after fifteen years of living on the island they now spoke Greek and had been accepted into the Orthodox faith. And their two boys had been baptised, with our neighbours acting as the children’s combari (godparents).

                                      Takis and Anestis Discovering the Fireplace

The first thing you noticed about Anestis was his lack of height, but he made up for his short stature with amazing strength. He was happy to continue working for us, and he and Takis soon bonded. A strange pair they looked, working alongside each other: a real David and Goliath. This swarthy little man with thick black wavy hair and a happy disposition became an indispensable part of our venture. I too appreciated him, especially when I discovered he loved gardening. His friendly temperament was apparent from his first ‘Kalimara’ to his last ‘Yia sou’ at the end of the day.

He came at eight each day and worked on the most demanding jobs until two or three in the afternoon, at which time he left us to go to another job. Maria, his wife, is a pretty woman with curly, light brown hair. She’d found cleaning jobs on the island as soon as she arrived, a little after Anestis, and she continued working in a number of households after their two boys were born. Though she was busy looking after her youngest she agree to come and help us for a few hours each week, and sometimes she arrived with the youngest in a pram. This was a great help as I was then able to concentrate more on the renovating and painting jobs I’d begun.

We were exceptionally lucky to have inherited these helpers, though I found my lack of Greek made things a little difficult. With Maria I managed with only pano banyo, and exi banyo, top floor bathroom and outside bathroom, always supplemented by sign language. And, oh yes, electric scooper was also a very helpful description. With Anestis I found it was important to know the words for water, nero, and cut and don’t cut, copse and mi to copsis. However, when needed, Takis could translate for me.

                                Setting Out the Herb Beds

Two Other Demolition and Rebuilding Stories

I've already mentioned these books by folks doing something a little the same as us, but they are worth mentioning again.

John Mole, Its All Greek to Me! (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004). This book is about an English banker who came to Greece and lived there 30 years. This is very much a story of house building in Greece.

John and Christopher Humphrey, Blue Skies and Black Olives (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2010). A tale of house building in Greece, written by a father who is an ex BBC journalist, and who does up a cottage in a part of Greece where his son is already living and bringing up a family.

Modern Greek Culture

Modern Greek Culture

After travelling to Greece for three or four years, for six or seven months at a time, my husband and I have found ourselves entering into much more than just a renovation project.

We are experiencing Greek culture in the 20C. Much of what is below will be familiar to you through news reports, but now we were living in Greece and finding out that to live in a country you need to take on board the differences. Even Takis, though revelling in much that was familiar from his past, found many aspects of life in Greece today that he had to adapt to.

Below are just a few of the experiences that we could not help immediately noticing and that we now had to negotiate.


One of the problems of adjusting to a different culture is getting a handle on the manner in which time and space are used in that locale.  Shopping, for instance, was made even more difficult for me because there were so many regular half-day closings, and so many irregular closings. There were many times I walked down to the Agora, to the post office or the fruit shop, only to find the shop I wanted was closed. I wondered how the locals knew when to go out shopping. Slowly, however, I found that closures might be due to it being a saint’s day, or perhaps because of a public strike, or maybe it was just a seasonal adjustment (early closing starting as soon as autumn arrived and the tourists left). Eventually I realized that, while the locals knew about many of these closures ahead of time, they also had the attitude that there was always tomorrow – though of course for us there was not: we had a limit of four months in which to complete this first stage of the repairs.

And yet another shopping problem was that very often I still didn’t know where to go find what I wanted, even if it was something very ordinary like elastic. Once I found the window rods I was seeking at the picture-framers, another time small plants in a souvenir shop and, after searching for several days, I finally found loose tea in the haberdashery. Moreover it was here, in the most obvious place, I found the elastic.

The Greek Personality

Travel books often comment that Greeks can look as if they are arguing when they talking to each other, mainly because they tend to wave their arms about and speak with raised voices. I have noticed this in my marriage as I have learnt that I sometimes need to express myself forcefully too, if I want my husband to see that I mean what I am saying.

It is said that Greeks are excitable, noisy and political and I was aware that when people talk about someone being ‘typically Greek’ they are often referring to this aspect of their nature. And in Athens today, with marches and protests, Greeks often vent, in a noisy political fashion, their displeasure with how their country is being governed.

The Lemians however are slightly less demonstrative, especially in one-on-one communication. Though there are still noisy aspects to life on the island. I've noticed that children in our local primary school are at times learning to shout out their rote learning, and the local youths ride especially noisy motorbikes, while our neighbours feel no compunction at letting others know what they are talking about from their balconies.

Modern Greek

The island of Lemnos was populated by non-Greek speakers until well into the archaic period. And even when they adopted Greek as their language the people on the island spoke with an Ionic dialect that was unlike that of other nearby islands like Lesbos where people had an Aeolic dialect. However today it is very different. Now Greek is spoken with very little difference all over Greece.

However English is making inroads. You will see multiple signs on shop fronts, some written in Greek script, some in Roman script and then the same translated into English. 

Also, as there is not always a direct translation of a sound, many words have two spellings, for instance Lemnos and Limnos. You might even find both spellings for Lemnos used on the same page of a tourist pamphlet!

Local Meal Times

Tourists tend to go to the tavernas to eat at the same time they eat at home, in England or Germany or Australia. They will arrive for lunch at midday and dinner around 7-8 in the evening. However the locals have very different meal times. They eat lunch at about 2 in the afternoon, and dinner usually does not start before 10 in the evening.

Even little children go out to eat with their parents late in the evening. This is probably because everyone has an afternoon siesta, and after work and then late dinner some do not return home until three in the morning. So taverns tend to have several sittings, the first for the tourists and the second for the locals.

Mid-Summer Tourists

The island only has short tourist season, for two months each summer. There are two hotels that fly in English tourists by Thomas Cook Airlines, but these tourists tend to remain in their hotel complexes. Most other tourists are Greeks expats from Australia and America. There are also some that come from Germany or Holland, and recently there have been more Russians.

Plus, each summer many workers arrive in Greece to work in tourist establishments. They mostly come from Eastern Europe.

Every year at this time, traffic peaks at Greece at northern border crossings, as Albanians, Bulgarians, Slav-Macedonians, Serbs, Russians and Czechs flock to the country’s coastal resorts and islands. At the same time, thousands of economic migrants, mostly from Albania, return to their homelands for summer holidays.  Stavros Tzimas in Kathimerini

Some stay as illegal immigrants. Today there are more than I million migrants living in Greece and migrants make up over a 10th of the Greek population.

Neighbourhood Politics

A Turkish coast guard patrol boat approached at a close distance, well within Greek waters, the uninhabited Dodecanese islet of Imia – over whose ownership the two countries came very close to fighting in January 1996. The Turkish vessel stayed in the area for about half an hour, ignoring two Greek coast guard and navy vessels that instructed it to go away.  Kathimerini

This was an event that happened when we first came to Lemnos however we’ve noticed some welcome changes – some possibly the result of the economic pressures that Greece is currently facing.

In the early years of our residence dog-fights between the Turkish and Greek air forces were regularly played out above the house. Even two or three years ago large numbers of soldiers were stationed on the island. We would regularly encounter slow old army trucks on the roads, but now that there are hardly any soldiers to be seen it’s rare to find army trucks holding up the traffic. It’s not hard to reason that this change might be connected to the disastrous Greek economy which has led to a reduction in government spending in most areas.

An Addiction to Sport

For a couple of Australians this was not so hard to get used to, for Australians also tend to talk of sport and the weather in equally obsessive ways.

In Greece it is soccer and basketball that are taken very seriously. Once when we were in Athens we could not get onto the train platform as the police were there in numbers, herding hundreds of soccer fans into two different sections of a train that was about to leave on its way to a football stadium. And recently passions got so hot at basketball games that the fans were banned and games were played without spectators.

Most of soccer fans in Lemnos are followers of the Athenian clubs Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, and now and then the white painted wall opposite our house will be painted with slogans praising one or other club.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Finding the Soul of the House

Finding the Soul of the House

The Workers

We found ourselves busy pulling many of the structures of the house apart and putting them together again, what we did know quite well by now was something about the materials used in its building. The construction was beautifully efficient. Totally insulated by stone, earth, wood and reeds, it could stand for hundreds of years if lived in and cared for. However, being made with natural materials, when abandoned a house like this would quickly deteriorate and become just a pile of stones and timber in a field. Modern cement houses unfortunately don’t disintegrate as beautifully, and an abandoned cement factory, showroom or warehouse usually becomes an ugly eyesore – as so many have in modern Greece.

    Takis in his Carpentry Workroom

We tried to honour the architectural signs of the house’s past. But as we couldn’t consult with any of George and Ephterpi’s generation, all I could do, as I’ve mentioned, was to try to put myself in grandmother Ephterpi’s shoes. I played with the idea that the passions and energies of past generations remain imprinted on a house.

    Julia Painting a Ceiling

It was this imagining, and the familiarity of living there ourselves for some years, that gave me the clue to find the well, and later the chimney.

It all began with a watermelon

One evening, as Takis and I were walking around the property doing one of our post-siesta inspections, we were stopped at the back wall by a voice calling to us from the now reinforced car park above. It was Irini, another neighbour. She was hanging her washing out up there. She and Takis spoke of various things and then I whispered a question, ‘Ask her if she can remember if there was ever a well here.’

I’d been looking that day at a concrete square in the middle of the rough stone floor of the old laundry, and I wondered about it. Now she pointed to this very building and said, ‘It’s in there, in the old laundry.’
‘Right first time,’ I murmured to myself.
After she’d left we went to inspect the concrete block more carefully. Takis got a couple of tools and levered it up while I wedged it open.
‘No nasty smell,’ I said. ‘It’s not the septic tank.’
‘They wouldn’t have put the septic here, away from the house. We’ll probably find that closer to the bathroom.’
I found a small stone and dropped it into the hole. We both stood listening. A couple of seconds later we heard a splash. We whooped with excitement. We had our own water supply on the property: what a bonus!
‘It’s probably undrinkable with so many houses around us, each with their own septic.’
‘But at least we’ll have water for the garden,’ I said with great satisfaction.
The next day Takis asked Anestis and Marcos to open up the well again. He wanted to see how much water it held. Panayiotis, another neighbour, had called by and the four men lifted the slab then lowered a string with a weight attached. We discovered we had three metres of water at a depth of six metres. That sounded pretty good to me.

     Takis and Neigbours Sounding the Well

Another renovation that returned the house to a previous set-up came about when I explored a large bulge on one of the walls of a small bedroom on the middle floor. I’d become suspicious that there might be something behind the plasterwork, and I began tapping on the surface. Hearing a hollow ring in the centre I called Takis and pointed out the shape of the bulge and the possibility of something being behind the plaster. He soon had Anestis attacking the plaster with a sledgehammer. We all shouted with joy and surprise when we found what I’d been suspecting, an old fireplace. Though there wasn’t a chimney opening on the roof we could now see there was a chimney vent going up through the thick wall. However, it didn’t look as a fire had ever been lit there as the brickwork wasn’t sooty. Maybe the structure had only been used for keeping pans warm, with a few hot coals placed under the saucepans that had been brought upstairs from the furno. It seemed a good explanation, for this room was just across the landing from the room that had once been the dining room. What was truly wonderful about this find was the beautifully cut stone arch around the fireplace, so soon Anestis was set to work to uncover and strengthen this feature.

     The old chimney place

Yet mysteries remained. Often we could only speculate about the use of some of the rooms. For instance, why were all four walls of the room just inside the front door two feet thick? Was it the outline of some original shepherd’s hut, and perhaps the future house grew around that first structure? Or was this room built at the same time as the rest of the house, and made so solid because it was to be a storeroom?

An Organic Renovation

An Organic Renovation

To live in an old house is to live with an old house. It requires a degree of unrequited love, a romantic disposition, and a distracted and remote state of mind. Kevin McCloud

The house and bathroom roofs today

The first year we went we had to do something about the roof. It was leaking badly and had caused the floor boards to warp. Takis found someone who had experience at repairing roofs and told out two Albanian workers that they’d be assisting, and they all began by removing and sorting out the better tiles. The broken ones were thrown onto a pile in the garden. Anestis then made and carried cement up the two flights of ladders to Marcos who was on the roof helping Capos. I might add that Capos, who was in his seventies was clambering all over the roof like a young goat, however it was soon obvious that one of the men was not very happy helping up there. As Takis doesn’t believe in getting anyone to do a job that he’d not be prepared to do himself, he decided to climb up onto the roof to check the working conditions. Moreover as Capos was the same age as he was he felt he had to prove himself as capable! 

Unfortunately, on reaching the top he looked down. That was it: he was terror-struck – he froze, unable to turn around and return via the ladder. It took Capos and the other helper a long time, and careful guidance to get his feet on the first rung to climb back down. When he did eventually reach ground level he told me his legs were shaking and that he’d thought he’d have to get Capos to take tiles off the roof and lower him down into the attic. 

             Stage one, removing and replacing the old roof tiles

Stage two building a roof over the bathroom

It all began with a watermelon

Were we renovating, restoring or repairing? People in various countries tackle renovations in different ways. I’d found that old houses in some countries are renovated to create an exact replica, while in other countries, such as Italy, the practice is to replace the old with newly distressed materials. The first approach in my opinion could end up looking like a sort of Disney-World construction, and the second isn’t really telling the truth.

There is another approach. This tries to preserve what is old, adding new materials where necessary but only choosing materials that are as close a match as possible. The idea is not to conceal the addition and to let the new age naturally. (This, a TV program told us, was the English way.) I suggested to Takis that perhaps we’d used all three processes, in different parts of our building – though we were probably favouring the third.

Francis Bacon’s idea of building, as he wrote in his treatise ‘On Building’, is that ‘Houses are built to live in not to look on, therefore let use be preferred before uniformity, except where both may be had.’ So when we were asked why and how we were doing what we were doing, we’d sometimes joke that we were renovating in an organic fashion with our fingers crossed. However, while we’d stumbled on an organic approach, we often disagreed about what methods we were using when replacing parts of the house.

It seemed that each day we’d be faced with decisions about how much and how far to take a repair, and this produced continual dilemmas. Kevin McCloud addresses this in his Grand Designs Handbook. When I read it I found I usually agreed with him, especially when he wrote that old houses ‘require love and quite a lot of money. And although they can reveal great joys and provide great style, they do not bend themselves easily to modern living.’ However, as we wanted to live in our house comfortably – to be able to sleep, entertain, and watch television – I did baulk at other aspects of his manifesto, for instance, when he wrote that one might need to decline ‘many twenty-first century pleasances, such as draught-free warmth, underfloor heating and double-glazing.’

But this need to make the house liveable didn’t stop us from thinking long and hard about changing the windows, because we loved their fragile old frames with their rippled glass and we knew that they gave the house a particular character that we’d lose if we changed them. The final decision to have double-glazed windows was probably mostly driven by a need to block out the sound of the noisy motorbikes. Though the traffic outside the house isn’t continual, when those motorbikes rush up the cobbled street at three in the morning it sounds as if you’re about to be struck by a hurricane. So in the end we’d settled on Takis making new wooden windows, in the old style but enclosing panes of double-glazed glass.

                                            Two new windows

While there are obvious cultural differences in this renovation game, for us the guiding principle meant we had to live in this old house in today’s world, and so (sometimes reluctantly) we’d often made compromises, such as those we’d made to deal with the island’s extreme weather conditions. And there were those we’d made because the house is sited next to two roads: we needed double-glazed windows to keep out the noise as well as the cold and heat.

As with the windows, so with the floorboards, we felt we had to make some changes. The floorboards too were character filled – wide and old, held down with huge square-headed iron nails. After much debate I agreed with Takis that some of the most warped, and those that had large holes, had to go. In addition, in places the mice were obviously using the space under and between the joists as a freeway to their homes.

Those floorboards told us something special about the history of the house. We could see the skilled tradesmen’s marks where the boards had been hewn, and Takis admired (and cursed) those huge old square iron nails. As a result, when I read McCloud’s passionate detailing of old methods of carpentry I nodded vigorously. Describing old skirting boards he wrote,

If buildings reverberate to anything, it is to the energy and commitment inherent in the craftsmanship of all the details in the place... Human effort required in 1720 to produce one metre of skirting = 10 hours. Machine effort required in 2000 = 3 minutes. So what the hell are we doing when we rip out an old moulding and replace it with a new one? We’re devaluing the building, devaluing the human effort that went into it in the first place, and actually eating into the thing that some call ‘soul’, the genius loci…

So again we had to come up with an answer for our particular situation. Takis laid new oak floors on the much-used middle floor, levelling where the floor sloped badly towards one corner. In other areas Anestis and Takis took up the boards, straightened the joists, and then replaced the same boards. And in one room the floorboards were so badly nibbled and so smelly (with mice nests underneath) that the whole floor with its joists had to be replaced. But whenever possible we left the old floor in place and just gave the boards a light coating of preservative oil.

Books on Old Houses...

Kevin McCloud’s Principles of Home: Making a Place to Live (HarperCollins Publishers, 2012) offered thoughts about renovating old houses that I found inspirational and challenging.

On Demolition and Rebuilding

John Mole, Its All Greek to Me! (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2004). This book is about an English banker who came to Greece and lived there 30 years. This is very much a story of house building in Greece.

John and Christopher Humphrey, Blue Skies and Black Olives (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd., 2010). A tale of house building in Greece, written by a father who is an ex BBC journalist, and who does up a cottage in a part of Greece where his son is already living and bringing up a family.

Jeffrey Greene, French Spirits:A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy (Harper Perennial, 2003) Greene tells in lyrical prose the story of turning and old presbytery into a home. He is an American poet and I find his account charmingly sympathetic to the neighbourhood and house.

Eleni Gage, North of Ithaka (Bantam Press, 2004). Eleni is the daughter of Nicholas Gage who wrote a book called Eleni about his mother. This book was later made into a film and it told of her imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni, the grandaughter, goes back to rebuild the family house. This is the book that most echoes our building adventures while also drawing on references to the family’s past.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Starting Work

Starting Work

A brief summary of what went before


I was on holiday in the outback of Australia when my husband first had the idea of renovating a house in Greece.


The next year we took a trip to the island of Lemnos for a quick look, to see if we thought this plan was really possible. We also visited Athens and Santorini.

Takis had known what he was doing: when he took me to see the house, he’d counted on the romance getting to me. And it did. I now found myself buying French and Italian house-and-garden magazines and looking for pictures of old stone houses with shutters. And then, when I caught myself trying to find out something about the history of Greek ‘Venetian’ houses, I realised I was well and truly hooked.


And, the following year, although we only owned half the shares of the house, we began work.

Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. 
William Hutchinson Murry

Owning as many shares as he did Takis felt that he needed to protect his investment – at least to get the roof repaired. He fatalistically believed that, since much had worked out well for us up until now, things would continue to do so. I still had my doubts. I could not forget that as well as the old collapsing terracotta-tiled roof there were 300 square metres of uneven and cracked floorboards and damp crumbling stone walls, each 800 millimetres thick, to deal with. True, there were things to be excited about, but there were many other things that were not ideal. However, if I was honest, I knew we were both falling in love with the idea of renovating an old stone house.

It was September 2004. Takis' daughter came with us for the first month and we stayed two more. At first she and I went from room to room trying to put some order; emptying out all the accumulated rubbish left in the house by previous generations. Our investigation of the house was in many ways a repeat of the investigation Takis and I had made the previous year. We went from room to room and opened up a few shutters here and there. As we opened up one set of shutters a neighbour outside yelled up a warning at us, as he could see that the shutter was hanging by only one hinge and was in danger of falling down into the street below.

Whereas the year before I’d entered the house with mixed feelings this time I was excited by the idea of actually part-owning the house. So, although the plaster was stained, the shutters boarded up or hanging at an angle, I felt energized by the determination to renovate. Of course, looking at that outside balcony, rusted and slowly dropping boards into the street below, and at the electrical cables hanging precariously from the walls of each room, I could also see there was a daunting job ahead of us.

And not only in the house, for this was a house-and-garden complex. Out in the garden, while there was potential there was also much exhausting work to be done. Alongside the road was a two-metre high stone wall leaning out at dangerous angles, and the large yard looked like a disused football field. It took a lot of imagination to envisage this as a garden full of patios, terraces, trees, beans, cabbages and tomatoes.

Moving from room to room, looking at the piles of rubbish in each room – at the old beds and mattresses, chairs and pictures – we wondered how and where to start. Was there anything that could or should be kept? What should we throw out? The bedrooms (for nearly all the rooms had been turned into bedrooms) had countless sagging beds with lumpy sagging mattresses. The dated bathroom was similar to those you find in run-down hostels. And the kitchen had a ceiling that was grubby with years of cooking splatters. There were also numerous small tables, whose legs were standing in metal containers that we assumed had been filled with water to keep ants at bay.

So, while Takis visited engineers and talked to neighbours, we two began hauling out old torn, smelly curtains, cushions, sofas and mattresses. And, after heaving it all down two flights of stairs, we dragged everything to one end of the back terrace. The pile grew and grew. In the end we counted fourteen mattresses, several old bedsteads, many card tables, broken chairs and bags of old shoes. Still the pile continued to grow until it was as high as the first floor.

A neighbour came to see what we were doing. We showed her the pile. And when we were finished, though we were hot, sweaty and dirty, and exhausted, we were laughing as we balanced triumphantly on the top of the heap.

That evening I wrote a list of some of the things we’d discarded. When I read it aloud Takis said we should set it to the music of the carol, ‘On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me’ – though we agreed that sending any of these things would be no act of true love.

1 lounge suite – stained
2 bags of old photos, papers and letters
3 portable wardrobes – unstable
4 suitcases – stiff
5 card tables – wobbly
6 pairs of shoes – squished
7 leather bags – hard
8 bedside tables – peeling
9 pillows – saggy
10 picture frames – chipped
11 cushions – misshapen
A box with 12 cheap necklaces
Curtains for 13 windows – rotting
14 mattresses – grotty

1 ironing board – shaky
A few plastic potties – all colours
Buckets and spades – cracked
A beach umbrella – broken
And a black tuxedo – old fashioned.

The bags of old photos and papers we stored in a chest of drawers that I intended to keep. We also decided to look at the old dress jewellery again. The tuxedo I kept, as the waistcoat and trousers fitted me perfectly. A day or two later a truck drove up to remove the pile. It took two trips to remove the accumulated debris.

Books about overseas renovations

Jeffrey Greene, French Spirits:A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy (Harper Perennial, 2003) Greene tells in lyrical prose the story of turning and old presbytery into a home. He is an American poet and I found his account charmingly sympathetic to the neighbourhood and house.

Eleni Gage, North of Ithaka (Bantam Press, 2004). Eleni is the daughter of Nicholas Gage who wrote a book called Eleni about his mother. This book was later made into a film and it told of her imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni, the grandaughter, goes back to rebuild the family house. This is the book that most echoes our building adventures while also drawing on references to the family’s past.

Monday, 11 November 2013

A Family of Emigrants

A Family of Emigrants

Takis was born of Greek parents in Egypt and had visited Greece five times. I had studied about Classical Greece and had been there once before. So this was a journey of rediscovery for both of us. We both arrived with dreams and hopes, even though they were not identical dreams and hopes. What we have found during the years we have worked on this project is that some of these were shattered, some were augmented and others were fulfilled.

In his book, Returning Home, Jerry Burger writes about the difficulty of returning home. The research and stories that Burger uses comes from interviews with people who have made these journeys, for each year millions of American adults revisit a childhood home every year. Most people who revisit a childhood home are motivated by a desire to connect with their past. When they see the buildings, schools and parks from their childhood it helps them to establish a link between the child they were and the person they are today. As Burger points out these trips can serve several important psychological needs.

Returning Home, by Jerry Burger, is published online at the following retailers: Rowman & Littlefield Barnes & Noble Amazon Powell's Books) 

Thus it’s not surprising that we found the experience of ‘going home’ had its problems. Even before we put in place any serious actions there were questions about going to Greece on our retirement that troubled me. Several of them touched on the subject of being a hyphenated citizen.

Do Takis and I feel as though we are Exiles from Europe when we are in Australia?

Do we continue to feel we are Emigrants there? 

Perhaps we are now Assimilated Australians or are we perhaps now Intergrated Australians (both terms now frowned on in Australia)? 

How will I handle this, yet another (a third), cultural adaptation?

If Takis returned to Greece would he become ‘more Greek’?

Will I, or we, still be Outsiders in Greece? 

Miriam Gross has also written a book about the difficulty of returning home, and of living somewhere else as an outsider. She recently wrote an article in the Guardian (8.9.12) called ‘Living in England as an Outsider’. She appears to have pondered some of these same questions as I did, and she asks,

Does being uprooted matter? Does being removed from the country in which you were born and where you spent the first years of your life leave an indefinable emotional scar? I don't believe so. Many of the "uprooted" are clearly much happier in their adopted countries than they were in their countries of origin. But making a new home in a completely new environment and a completely new language inevitably influences a person's perceptions, both about him- or herself and about others.’ She concludes, ‘Though I have never felt totally at home in England, I married an English husband and had brought up two English children. I was very happy to be English – or almost English.

An Almost English Life, by Miriam Gross, is published by Short Books, £14.99. To order a copy for £11.99, including free UK p&P, go to or call 0330 333 6846

It all began with a watermelon

When describing the attraction the house had for him, he told me about the first time he’d visited it, when he’d come from Australia in order to meet his mother, who was holidaying there with other members of the Greek family.

‘There’s something about the way old traditions are kept on the island, and this has always attracted the family, and me too. I arrived on August 15th, St. Mary’s Day. This is one of the most celebrated Greek holy days and it’s also my name day, and my mother had prepared a great celebration. I hadn’t seen my mother for a long while, nor most of my relatives since boyhood, so seeing so many of them all staying in the house was amazing.’

‘So everybody was still going there in those days.’

'Some were in the kitchen, some playing cards on the terrace, and I could hear others calling from upstairs as they got ready for a swim. There were wonderful aromas from the kitchen where my aunts were preparing meals and sweets, supervised by my mother who was the matriarch at the time. Ah, I remember it so well, the meals, the swims, the discussions on the terrace every evening while we sipped coffee, Greek coffee of course!’

I was touched by this affectionate description, and I considered how little I knew about this distant Greek family. But I also asked myself, why take his nostalgia so seriously? Hadn’t I too had left family and country behind? And did I feel the need to buy and run a hotel in Devon?

In spite of the two big problems (being once again a newcomer, and the great distance we would have to travel to ‘go home’) Our Great Greek Adventure has turned out to be very worthwhile. It has been challenging but also exciting, confusing but also enlightening, frustrating but also very satisfying. Yes, there have been many problems, but the plusses have heavily weighed the scales down.

Culture, family and language are important aspects of life. They enable us feel ‘at home’ and it’s hard to overcome feelings of loss when we leave these behind. You can sometimes replace what you feel is missing, and often you can find something that is similar in another place. This happen to us when we moved to Australia and I sought out English newspapers and Takis listened to Greek music. But we settled down and grew to enjoy aspects of the Australian culture. Now the reverse happens so that here in Greece we try to listen to the ABC breakfast show, and continue to have marmalade every day for breakfast (jams and marmalade are unknown here so we make our own).

But not only is culture, family and language important, so too is a sense of place. Takis had been brought up in a big city and I’m sure that why he felt at home in Melbourne. The towns along the river Thames were ‘home’ to me, and so too was the valley where I raised my children, so that still the way a river or stream draws life towards it thrills me – very much as it did Ratty in Wind in the Willows.

Takis’ images came from his youth in Alexandria but also from the stories his parents told of their old island home. He was aware that the hills in Lemnos were dry, and the fields were rocky, but always there was always the sea nearby. So, while most of Takis’ childhood stories were about living with his family in Alexandria nevertheless I have often heard stories of  Lemnos and his few visits there.

And when times got so bad the people were starving they would have to resettle elsewhere. In earlier days they would relocate to villages and towns around the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, where they could find colonies of Greeks – for instance to Smyrna, Odessa and Alexandria. In later times they would immigrate to New York in the States, to Melbourne in Australia, and to Durban in South Africa.
Takis great grandfather left for Alexandria in the mid 19C to run a store there, his grandfather George left the island as a bare foot young boy and found a job in that shop. Both kept their ties with the island and this house was given to George as dowry when he married the grocer’s daughter. They had nine children and they would all come by boat every year to spend their summer on the island. And since then the house has been the summer residence of any of their progeny that could make it here for the summer. This family representing what occurs all over the island, when in the summer the population tends to double as Greeks return to their natal island and villages.

Books by wives of Greek nationals and others who have moved back 

Sofka Zinovieff, Eurydice Street, a place in Athens (Granta Publications, 2004). The writer marries a Greek. This book details the first year of her life after the couple with their two daughters move back to live in Athens.   She writes knowingly about the rites and rituals that Greek families all observe, and quite lot about what it means to live in Athens.

Gillian Bouras, A Foreign Wife (Penguin Books Australia Ltd.,1990). This well-known Australian writer tells of her difficulties accepted as a new wife in a Greek family and in a small village community. She has also written A Stranger Here (Penguin Books Australia, 1996). This book is a novel that looks at the lives of three women and studies their feelings of displacement living in Australia and Greece.

Arnold Zable, Sea of Many Returns (Text Publishing, Melbourne Australia,  2010) In this book the author discusses the seagoing life of many who live on Ithaka. He draws on his own experiences of returning to Ithaca with his Greek wife over the years. Although this island is far from Lemnos, and set in another sea, this story reveals how many Greeks journeyed past Lemnos on their way to trade around the shores of the Black Sea.


Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Greek Cousins

 The Greek Cousins

I must apologise that its taken a while to get this blog up and running. The problem was that when we got back to Australia we found our computers only working intermittently. This could have been caused by the very strong winds Melbourne had this past winter (and which we missed as we were in Greece!) Also, once again, my pictures did not want to stay where I placed them and floated all over the page. HOWEVER, with one or two calls to Telstra, and help from a daughter, I've managed to put together more of our story, the part in which the drama of buying the house begins.

(The very start of our adventure, when the idea first popped into my husband's head can be located on my first blog (since writing these blogs I’ve discovered that blogs do not adapt very well to a chronological tale, and to find that part of the story you'll have to scroll right down to the bottom of the page, or pick up the one called 'Dreaming of a Homeland')

So, to quickly recap, my husband Takis decided to buy and renovate his grandfather’s old house on the island of Lemnos.....

The house was probably originally a two story stone house, and belonged to Takis great grandfather, Johannes Pandezolou. We have now renovated the house, and we have pictures of the great grandparents, the grandparents, and the original nine children, hanging in our living room.

                    Reflected in a mirror pictures of the Pandazolou and Mavrellis family.

The history of this family begins with Johannes, who had left the island and found work in Egypt in the mid 19C and when his daughter married George Mavrellis he made over the house over to her as a dowry gift. Ephterpi and George (who also came from Lemnos) continued to live in Egypt but every year they sailed to Lemnos for their summer holidays, along with their nine children!

Those nine children married and their children continued to spend their summers in the old house. When we came along and decided to buy the house there were about 36 progeny that were in possession. We did eventually manage to buy the house from all of these cousins but it took time – about six years!

It all began with a watermelon

Takis’ phone calls to the cousins became a nightly event, and he began to get even more enthusiastic, if that was possible. Most of the cousins lived in Greece but there were also a few cousins in Canada. These were particularly surprised to hear from him after all these years. And when they learnt that they still owned a part of a house in Greece they were even more surprised – even some of the Greek cousins had been a bit taken aback with this news.                                                        Because Takis hadn’t spoken to most in years, he couldn’t immediately, or too bluntly, plunge into the topic of buying up shares, so he tended to begin casually.

‘Georgos, Taki here, Taki Statiras!’

There would be a gasp of surprise and then, ‘Can it really be you?’

This would lead the two to share information about their recent lives. A little later Takis would begin telling them about his visit to Lemnos earlier in the year, and when reminded of the island house all recalled stories they’d heard from their parents about the place. Then would come memories of their own family holidays there in the 50s and 60s. In response Takis would give a description of the current condition of the property, and begin to outline his plans. On hearing this, his listeners became cautious, saying that though they loved the island they really didn’t want be involved in any renovation projects.

So, while most commended him for trying the save the family house, and many said that they would genuinely support him, they all began to hedge. Even the few who sounded slightly interested were not attracted enough to make any commitment. And when he said that his interest extended to buying their shares, they all expressed extreme hesitation about selling. The reason was, of course, that they were the grandchildren of a Greek trader, and what sort of Greek trader would willingly pass up an opportunity to make a deal? Thus, though doing so tentatively, each did put out feelers to discover how much they might get if they did sell.

At this point I should explain a little more about the complicated, and very Greek, legal land title that the house stood on. Grandfather George had left the house exathieretou (undivided) to his nine children. This meant that each had equal rights to the house, the land, and all that was therein and thereon. This right was passed on to their children, and so on down the line.

When Takis had first explained this to me I was horrified. ‘But this is impossible. There’s no one person to approach! There will be dozens by now who consider themselves owners. How will you find them all?’

Then another thought struck me. ‘If they all think of themselves as owners, will all have a right to come whenever they want?’

‘That’s how it has always been, and why the house was filled with folk when I went in the 70s.’

Suddenly the main reason for the present rundown state of the house hit me. ‘So no one takes the final responsibility for maintenance, because there’s no incentive for anyone to do anything when it belongs to so many!’

The house when we began work on the roof and bathroom addition

However, as a result of his continued resolve Takis did begin to make some progress towards his goal, and a few cousins began to come around to his way of thinking. The first to agree to sell were the Canadians, as they realized they couldn’t easily visit the house in Greece again. As to the others, Takis said it was clear that most of the Greeks would only agree to his point of view in face-to-face discussions. With every confidence he assured me that in the end it would come down to each person’s immediate self-interest.

‘Some will need the money right away and they’ll jump at any offer. Some others are very involved with their own lives and won’t care what happens. Then there are others who might want to keep possibilities open, thinking that they might go to the house later. What’s sure is that none of them want to spend anything on upkeep.’ He then added confidently, ‘That gives us an advantage. You’ll see, in the end most will sell.’

     A bust of the original George in our garden

Remembering the scene in the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding when the boyfriend was introduced to the heroine’s Greek cousins and nephews, all named after their grandfather, I soon found that in this family many had been named after their grandfather, George. The hero in that film had to deal with many variations of Nicholas (Nick, Rick, Nicco and so on), but unfortunately there aren’t many nicknames for the name George. After a while of referring to them with their full name, Takis and I devised nicknames to help me know what was going on. It meant no disrespect but summed up the place of each in the present scheme of things. There was of course George the Brother, but then we added George the Beaver (the dogged one that kept pushing for his rights no matter what), and George the Weasel (the one whom everyone was trying to collect money from) and so on.

This was especially helpful as events very quickly hotted up and the deal to buy up the shares became even more convoluted. In our particular saga it seems that the Weasel owed the Beaver money, and if we arranged to buy the Weasel’s share the Beaver then knew that the Weasel had enough money to pay back the longstanding debt. However, it then struck Takis that as the Weasel also owed money to the Brother, ‘Why not make the same deal for him?’

Meanwhile everyone was telling us not to trust anyone else, and to keep the details of these deals secret. As a result, while conducting any one transaction Takis tried not to let the right hand know what the left was doing. However, to our amusement and chagrin, we found they were all phoning each other anyway.

But in the end it was not the Canadians or this particular deal between the Georges that became Takis first investment in the house. On a visit to Athens Takis’ sister told him that one of his other cousins had fallen on hard times and that his wife needed cataract operations on both eyes. She suggested it would help them if he bought that cousin’s share, and on going ahead with this transaction Takis found himself possessing not only his own share (a 36th) but also this other small share (an 18th). It was a start, and marked the beginning of our financial commitment. And on hearing of this transaction the other cousins once again began phoning. The Beaver, the Brother and the Weasel were reinvigorated and restarted negotiations.

To me it still sounded a very circuitous way of paying debts and acquiring shares. But as Takis explained to me yet again how it was that cousin George owed cousin George money, and if cousin George could benefit from cousin George’s selling of his shares, why should not brother George also benefit? Confused? I certainly was. It reminded me of a jingle my old London granny used to recite about two brothers, both called Bob, My brother Bob owes your brother Bob a bob, and if your brother Bob doesn’t pay my brother Bob the bob he owes, my brother Bob will bob your brother Bob a bob in the eye!

More Books:

About this time I became particularly interested in books by other women who had followed their Greek husbands back to Greece.

Sofka Zinovieff, Eurydice Street, a place in Athens (Granta Publications, 2004). The writer marries a Greek. This book details the first year of her life after the couple with their two daughters move back to live in Athens.   She writes knowingly about the rites and rituals that Greek families all observe, and quite lot about what it means to live in Athens.

Gillian Bouras, A Foreign Wife (Penguin Books Australia Ltd.,1990). This well-known Australian writer tells of her difficulties accepted as a new wife in a Greek family and  in a small village community. She has also written A Stranger Here (Penguin Books Australia, 1996). This book is a novel that looks at the lives of three women and studies their feelings of displacement living in Australia and Greece.